John Kerry on the Unfathomable Stakes of the Next U.N. Climate-Change Conference

As wildfires, floods, and extraordinary storms ravage parts of the globe this summer, as glaciers cleave and collapse and the Siberian permafrost softens and releases methane into the atmosphere, it is becoming increasingly evident that John Kerry, the first special Presidential envoy for climate, holds the most consequential job in the Biden Administration after Joe Biden himself.

Kerry is seventy-seven and, not long ago, seemed headed for a cushy retirement after a long career in government. He first gained public notice as a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who became a spokesman for the antiwar movement. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1985 to 2013––a stretch interrupted by a narrow loss of the Presidency, to George W. Bush, in 2004. He was Secretary of State during the Obama Administration, following Hillary Clinton at the Department. In that office, Kerry was routinely faulted for a kind of quixotic insistence on pursuing lost causes. He failed in his attempt to broker any meaningful agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but he played a pivotal role in concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran––an agreement that Donald Trump upended upon reaching the White House.

In his new role, Kerry faces an even more complicated and essential diplomatic challenge. From October 31st to November 12th, he will lead a U.S. delegation to Glasgow, where the United Nations will host, in diplo-speak, COP26, a long-awaited multilateral climate-change conference. Kerry is confronted not only with the undeniable evidence of an ever-intensifying global climate crisis but with an enormous set of political challenges. The U.S. delegation will arrive in Glasgow with its prestige radically diminished by Trump, who abandoned U.S. support of international efforts to fight climate change. Kerry is also faced with the delicate task of trying to convince China to restrain carbon emissions even as the U.S. rightly criticizes the country for its ruthless treatment of the Uyghurs.

I spoke with Kerry last week by Zoom for The New Yorker Radio Hour. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Secretary Kerry, you were just in Europe to drum up support for climate action in advance of talks in Glasgow. You’ve said that these talks are the last chance to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. What is the world’s sense of urgency on this? Because here we are, in a summer of what seem to be apocalyptic conditions already.

Well, they are apocalyptic. It’s more serious than it’s ever been, at a time that it seems as if some key nations are just unwilling to do their part, to bite the bullet and step up. Let me put that in perspective: at the summit that President Biden hosted last April, we had about forty nations. We had the twenty largest economies, which happen to be among the largest emitters of CO2. About fifty-five per cent of global G.D.P., out of that meeting, committed to try to hold the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees. And forty-five per cent, therefore, did not, and that includes China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, a host of countries. We have to move those countries. If we don’t get them to buy into faster reductions from 2020 to 2030, [the goal of] 1.5 degrees is dead. You won’t be able to achieve it. I do view this personally, after a thirty-year journey on this issue. I view this as the last, best hope for the world to get serious and make the decisions necessary to be able to try to reduce and hold the 1.5 [increase], and even 1.5, imagine what happens at 1.5 if you already see what happens at 1.2. You would think not.

Describe for me what it’s like to talk to the Chinese on these issues. What is the dynamic? What is their rationale, as you understand it?

China, for instance, is a contradiction. China has deployed more renewables than any other country in the world. But China has used an extraordinary amount of fossil fuel to get where it is in its economy. China’s rationale is that they are doing a great deal, more than most developing [countries]. They consider themselves a developing country still, and they [posit] that a developing country has a right, at this point, to be able to develop more. Our counter obviously is: we want you to develop, we’re fine with you developing, but you don’t have to develop dirty. You don’t have to develop by putting more coal-fired power plants online, and that’s what’s been happening in the last few years. China, regrettably, has continued to build coal-fired power plants, and to fund them in other countries around the world.

To make the politics even more vexed, the U.S. has accused the Chinese government of genocide against the Uyghurs. How can you accuse someone of genocide—however grounded in reality, without doubt—and yet, at the same time, get them to coöperate with you on a political, technological, and ecological problem of such huge scale and importance?

Well, obviously it’s difficult. It takes discipline to do it, but both President Biden and President Xi agreed in their initial conversations and in public statements that the climate crisis is so serious that they would separate it, that this would be a track on which, hopefully, we can compartmentalize and make progress. Historically, big nations with great power have been able to do that. Gorbachev and Reagan, in Reykjavik, decided we would stop pointing fifty thousand warheads at each other and move to reduce those numbers way down, to about fifteen hundred. It happened despite the fact that Reagan believed the Soviet Union was “the evil empire.” So, in terms of international affairs and diplomacy, we on my team are taking both leaders at face value that this is a separate issue. It doesn’t mean that every arm of the government is going to stop saying something about Uyghurs or human rights, but it does mean that we have the ability to separate things and work where our common interests require us to work.

How costly was the behavior of the Trump Administration regarding climate?

The damage that President Trump wreaked worldwide is not limited to climate. But on climate he did a whopper of a job of putting America’s credibility in a terrible place, destroying it fundamentally. I hear from country after country: How do we know we can count on America? How do we know that another President is not going to come along, someone like Trump, who does the same thing again? My answer is very simple, that I don’t believe any one politician can come along in the future and turn this tide, because all around the planet the private sector is moving rapidly to do what governments aren’t doing. There’s a major undertaking by banks, by asset managers, by corporations who are considering environmental, social, and governance criteria in their boardrooms, and who have made commitments to sustainable development goals. There are trillions of dollars now moving to invest in alternative, renewable energy, whether it’s solar or hydro. There’s just a phenomenal amount of economic activity being generated. I don’t think any politician would want to turn it around, frankly, but, also, I don’t think they could.

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